Back when some of Rockingham’s more compassionate citizens weren’t telling me I was destined to end up dead or in prison before I reached 16, they were consigning me to a place that - in my mind - was worse than either: Cameron Morrison Training School.
Several friends were shipped off to Morrison for being “bad.” Their stories of what they endured would make angels cry. They do me, even 50 years later.
Without exception, they returned to our community broken, crushed, the light extinguished from their eyes and souls.
In short, it did precisely what I figure ol’ Cam would’ve wanted.
The hell-on-earth bearing Morrison’s name opened in 1923 as the State Training School for Negro Boys in Hoffman. It was recently changed to Richmond Correctional Institution as part of a national effort to rename buildings and institutions associated with racists.
The former governor was a member of the “Red Shirts,” a post-Civil War group of Confederates that violently overthrew the government in Wilmington and led the massacre there in 1898.
Remove Morrison’s name, sure, but that’s not enough to remove the stench of what that place did to my friends.
I know, and in some cases have trusted with my life, people who’ve spent years in maximum security prisons. Some admit that they emerged from prison as better people than they went in as.
Among the friends sentenced to Morrison, not one came out better for the experience. Preferring not to trust my own biased recollection for such an inflammatory claim, I asked others if they knew anyone who’d benefited from being sent there: most laughed at the thought of someone emerging from that hellhole a better person.
The lone positive thing one can say about the institution is that anyone who ever saw its marching precision drill team in the annual Rockingham Christmas parade will never forget it. Those dudes in their crisply starched uniforms, silver helmets and polished boots were the star attraction each year. They were so captivating that much of the crowd would often follow them and neglect the rest of the parade – especially when Santa Claus was being stingy with the candy he tossed from his sleigh.
You know the old saying “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die”? That’s how it was with Morrison’s precision drill team: everybody dreamed of being in it but nobody wanted to be in there.
Every chance I get, I thank teachers who were instrumental in my life. Mrs. Martin, Mr. Quick and Coach Krall are three about whom I’ve written appreciatively and, yes, lovingly – even though I would’ve sworn at the time that Krall hated my guts.
There was, however, one educator who did hate my guts.
He was the principal of Rockingham Junior High, and he seemed to delight in wielding above my head - like the sword of Damocles - what seemed the ultimate punishment: Morrison Training School.
On March 5, 1971, a Friday, I half-jokingly asked my 8th grade teacher if school was going to be canceled on Monday because that was the day Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were going to box in The Fight of the Century.
“No,” she replied, “because everyone is not a fanatic like you.”
Touche’. I nonetheless spent much of Monday’s class writing an epic poem imagining that night’s fight. Mrs. Raulerson suddenly appeared at my elbow, grabbed the poem and took it to the principal.
Did he laugh it off and admonish me to pay attention in class?
Nope. He called me to his office, said the handwriting in my notebook resembled dirty words that had been scrawled on school walls and threatened me with training school.
Later that year, in the same class, my buddy John handed me a folded piece of paper of a vulgar drawing – vulgar by 1971 standards - and said “Hey Saunders, pass this to Nancy.”
Being stupid, Saunders did – or attempted to. My pass was intercepted by the teacher and got us both sent to the principal’s office.
He was, he proclaimed angrily, fed up with my mess and vowed to send me to Morrison immediately. He snatched up the telephone and began dialing.
I, being unfamiliar with legal jurisprudence, didn’t know he couldn’t just do that. So I did what any terrified 13-year-old kid would do in such a situation: I cried and cried, pleaded for mercy, vowed to be an angel from that moment on. (Of course I wasn't.)
See the picture of 13-year-old me (attached)?
Why would a principal hate that kid?
I ended up with a three-day suspension and a lifetime scar on my spirit.
So, changing the name from Morrison to Richmond isn’t enough.
At the end of the movie Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino gives an impassioned speech in which he bellows about a different school, “If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place.”
That’s how I feel about Morrison Training School. I’d even pay for the privilege.
But first, the institution owes an apology to my friends it destroyed.